Current Genres of Fate: Psychology and Personality

by Paul North

Hannibal and clarice1How strange we are! We talk about our friends. We whisper: look, she's doing it again. She acts like that because her mother treated her in such and such a way. And: look at him. He always does this sort of thing. He finally got diagnosed but clearly they have to increase his dosage. Look at us: we're evolutionarily selected to hate our enemies, to choose mates with even finger lengths, to vote republican. We love to talk about psychology, the predilections, ticks, repetitions, drives, the mechanisms that make us do what we do. Along the same lines, we fetishize abnormal psychology and tell ourselves we're well within normal, and we know we are because we watch Dexter and Criminal Minds.

Some of what our friends do we put down to psychology, but TV serial killers are totally psychologized beings. The relationship of psychology to fateful thinking can be seen most clearly in them. What serial killers do is so extreme it can only be explained by reference to a tight internal network of causes controlling their being and activities. Morality doesn't affect them; they have no second thoughts before and no regrets after. All their acts are determined by the internal network, and it's up to the detective—an amateur psychologist, sometimes a professional—to unravel it. Serial killers are totally psychologized. Nothing they do is free. Each gesture can be traced to something in their childhood, some event that caused a twist in their mind, an imbalance in their essence, an association of false ideas, though these ideas are often deeply imaginative. And yet, you would never ask what the bloody act means to a serial killer. You never wonder whether they made a conscious decision to skin their victims; instead, you ask about the pathology that caused the act. Serial killers—on TV and in the movies—are one of the few creatures around whose actions can all be ascribed a cause. The serial killer is the body of fate, and psychology is its mind, its criminal mind.

Cassius laments: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves…" We can't pinpoint exactly when fate became fault, when destiny moved out of the stars and into the psyche, but in 1599 in Julius Caesar Shakespeare noted that it had already happened. How do you predict behavior, understand the world, tell a good person from a bad person when fate is not in the stars but within you? Not Cassius, but a much later literary character tells us: "You try to reconstruct his thinking. You try to find patterns." You find patterns, not in the stars, but in the head. So says Will Graham, the "forensic specialist" in the first Hannibal Lecter novel by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon. Bloodstains darken the walls and the floor. Those traces of the crime are easy to see. The stains that blot out reason in the killer's mind are hidden and have to be uncovered painstakingly and the task is not without risk.

The serial killer is completely determined by psychology. This character, much more frequent in fiction than in life, is our current fateful ideal, the highest example of psychological determinism, and believe it or not we are all dying to share in their beautiful destiny. We may not want to drug and kidnap, maim and torture, kill and dismember, or eat or wear our neighbors. What do we want from them? Serial killers offer the best and perhaps the only contemporary example of a being whose every gesture has a cause and whose every cause is necessary and sufficient for their actions. At least, this is the myth spun in novels, movies, and especially on TV: the myth of total causation and ultimately total explanation. External events never affect the killer's actions. It could be 1910 or 2010, Germany or America, they could be male or female, old, young, it makes little difference. The whole police force, the whole world can mobilize against a serial killer and they will keep to their iron pattern, carry out their fixed routine. Most importantly, within the killer, conscience never intervenes, nor any other free mode of thought, especially not reason. You would never say: if they only reasoned better, they would not do that.

How strange these killers are! Not because they kill, but in the way they spread their fate effects around. Gripped in every instant by the destiny put on them by their neural networks, their chemistry, their drives, the serial killer hands out the benefits of the their total determinism to others. Victims, who otherwise would be living out their lives in the usual hapless and indeterminate way, get drawn into the net and suffer the blows of fate along with the killer. In some sense this has to be seen as a kind of salvation from everyday accidental living. And look how far beyond these two figures, killer and victim, the fate effects spread. They spreads to the detective, and through them to the apparatus of law enforcement, and through that to government itself. If we want to know why there are so many serial killers on television (despite so very few in life) we can look to the instability of governments and their lack of legitimate grounds for their actions. Where terrorists actually delegitimize democratic government with their unpredictable attacks (and legitimize the deep state and its irrational strategies), because the overt, public government is powerless to prevent terrorism, serial killers with their regular, predictable, continual killing remind us that a police force and a rational governing order has a purpose in this day and age.

To sidle up close to destiny, we place our faith in the detective's intellectual powers. They pick up and order clues into a sun whose rays radiate from the criminal outward in time and space, and then they trot along these rays back to the center. The detective's powers of detection come ultimately from the criminal and their internal network of causes. Because the criminal made each mark, left each clue, and because their psychology made them do it, for this reason alone the detective can put the pieces together. The pieces belong to a whole because the criminal's internal network is so tightly knitted. Every trace it causes leads back to it. Chance events are not allowed to interfere in these scripts. The criminal psyche alone is the unified ground of the detective's procedure, the truth of their method, the sine qua non of the fate effects and their wide distribution.

We're talking about fictional killers, not real ones; and this way of looking at them is not moral but cultural. We want to know what the current rage for serial killers means. It's significant that their numbers and importance in American society are vastly distorted by the entertainment industry ( Serial killers are in novels and on TV more for the meaning they provide than for the reality they reflect. Our new gods—most have Homeric epithets, "the Dollmaker," "the Grave Digger," "the Cannibal"—wherever they walk, everyone gets the benefit of certainty. They will kill again, and again, you can be sure of it. Like gods, they hold the power over life and death. Traveling around, picking their victims according to an unknown principle—they show up anywhere, unbidden, and they know you in advance, they have chosen you for a special property that only they see. Perhaps it doesn't seem like fate because being plucked out of your daily life seems so unpredictable. The opposite is true. Because it is so unpredictable, it is undoubtedly a current genre of fate. A force moves through the land; you can't know its criterion, but you know it has one. It has you in its sights. Those not chosen by the killer are free because the killer, this reverse messiah, has for whatever reason not chosen them.

TV killers are destined to be caught, of course, almost without exception. Getting caught isn't a bad thing for them either—it proves the absolutely closed, and structured, totally logical network that is their psychology. An equally intricate mind is needed to catch them, and this is why the refrain of all detective shows is: the detective is the killer's psychic twin, the receptive part to their active part. Killer acts, detective thinks, where thinking is equivalent to induction. Observing, the detective puts together patterns; patterns lead to tentative hypotheses; hypotheses are tested and discarded if they can be falsified; any hypothesis that is not quickly falsified, in the artificially rapid lifetime of a TV serial, becomes the going theory. Because the going theory could always of course be falsified later on, if other evidence comes to light, thus leaving some doubt—and where serial killers and gods are concerned, there can be no doubt—, the crowning evidence is often a totally damning confession, or capture in flagrante delictu, or else the director simply introduces a scene in which the criminal shows the unmistakable marks of their psychopathy: rolling the eyes, foaming at the mouth, attacking a police sergeant.

If we say the serial killer is the current god of destiny, our new Anangke, then the detective is their priest, servant, translator, and messenger. The genius of the killer's mind becomes visible in the detective's reflex activities. One causes, the other infers; one comes, the other goes; one recedes, the other pursues. Usually a team of specialists is called for to unravel the killer's psychological threads. When someone is screaming on a street corner, we know in a minute, using inductive logic, what the problem is likely to be. Testimony to the impressive scope of the killer's psyche: not one, not two people, but a whole unit, sometimes an agency or an entire national force has to be mobilized in order to track the movements of the criminal mind. The master detective directs the mobilization. And, being not driven by psychology but by circumstances and good practices, norms and feelings, the detective in charge, the one whose mind does not produce but reproduces the killings, is seen as free. Detectives—Jason Gideon (Criminal Minds), Dr. Tony Hill (Wire in the Blood), Rust Cohle (True Detective, Season I)—have the appearance of freedom of movement, unfettered decision making, free thinking, mastery over their environment, in short, autonomy of thought and will. This is far from the case, however. Each of the detective's cogitations and each of their peregrinations is as though suspended on a wire tied straight to the killer. Detective, unit, force, agency, nation—become an immense, networked puppet, sensitive to the tiniest bat of the killer's eyelid. Every thought in the detective's mind reflects, through detours and sidelines, physical traces and the intervention of logic, the killer's psychology.

Of all the detectives and all the killers I have watched, and there have been too many to count, none is more puzzling to me than Hannibal Lecter. Yes, he is a serial killer. He is also a psychiatrist, and this complicates things. He does what he does because he has no other choice, and on top of that, he knows that this is the case, and so it lends his actions an air of freedom. He is the only free serial killer; he seems to choose in full knowledge of the alternatives and without psychological compulsion. Or better: he chooses his compulsions freely and with gusto. He follows his fate because he wants too. This apparent contradiction, though, only intensifies the fate effects. In other cases, the killer's psychology compels them to kill, while the study of psychology allows us to know, and in the end to intervene. In Hannibal's case, knowing what he is is his compulsion. This just condenses the puppet detective (controlled by the criminal) and the puppet killer (controlled by psychology) into one.

For those who still believe there is a difference between normal and abnormal psychology, Hannibal is the deepest mystery. "They don't know what to call him. His electroencephalograms show some odd patterns, but they haven't been able to tell much from them," says investigator Graham in the first novel by Harris. The odd patterns, these loops of fate, are the intertwined traces of the investigator and the killer within Lecter, as they go around and around in circles, pursuing each other. His are not "crimes of passion," where impulses momentarily take over; they are rational crimes, where the logic is solid and unwavering even though the effects are horrific. He is compelled to do irrational things and to observe them rationally. And he claims they are not the result of psychology but of reason. "Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences," says Lecter in the second novel, The Silence of the Lambs. This is not abnormal psychology, but rather normal psychology taken to the extreme of its own logic.

When she graduates and joins the bureau, FBI trainee Clarice Starling wants to work in "behavioral science." There is a problem. Different than all the others in the movie except one, Clarice is a person, not an inductive machine. She alone refuses to be hollowed out by the procedures and the pursuit of the criminal, unlike Graham before her or Crawford, the agent in charge of the unit. She's no puppet. She can be influenced, she hasn't made up her mind, her drives don't completely command her, her openness to situations radiates from her face and her posture, even when overshadowed by Hannibal the Cannibal. She is supposed to produce a "psycho-behavioral profile" of him, or this is what Crawford first requests in the 1991 movie version directed by Jonathan Demme. Clarice is not interested in Lecter's psychology, as so many others are; she is not really interested in profiling the serial killer either, the one whose god-name is Buffalo Bill. What she wants, in a departure from all the men in the film, is to return the young woman, Buffalo Bill's current victim, to her daily life. Clarice skill is to recognize things about the woman's life, about her personality, from her effects, her apartment, her clothing. This represents a departure from the extended fateful network in which Hannibal, Buffalo Bill, Crawford, the other FBI agents, and the federal government are all twisted up. Clarice has no psychology, but she does have a personality. Hannibal tries and tries to send her back to her childhood, to tell her that, yes, the course of her life has been determined by some small violences in her small time family. This is never convincing to her, or to us.

Personality is the best antidote to psychology. Your personality develops not by an internal logic or on a pre-wound clock. It develops when you bump into people and are affected by them, when you absorb the force of experiences and adapt to them, defend against traumas, take positions, yield positions. The biggest impact on your personality is made, I think, by other personalities. You know how it feels to be around someone with a big, generous personality. Their smile opens you up to a thousand possibilities of who you could be and what you could do. Or how about a personality with the capacity to stay intent on one specific thing. Those people with laser focus on the songs of birds or on dance moves, on a chemical reaction in a cancer tumor or on the movements of migratory peoples. These intensive affinities can no more be explained by psychology than by free will.

The characters in Silence of the Lambs, all of them bent double with the weight of destiny, are all in terrible need of Clarice. Save us from our belief in psychology and show us how to live, they silently scream. Clarice doesn't exactly know how to live, but she begins to learn from the victim, Catherine Martin, who has moved away from her Senator mother and the big wheel of fortune to live a small life full of its own perverse and wonderful pleasures and goals.

A being without psychology has to be the most enlightened, the most positive, the most able to act, the freest, the fateless one. According to the logic of psychology, our actions are constrained in a myriad of ways, our motives are determined by evolutionary forces, social forces, developmental stages, experiential accidents, neurological circuits. Even accidents are constraining forces. And constraint means predictability. Human life would be totally predictable if a super psychologist could describe these forces completely.

Clarice always acts out of character, so we can only ascribe it to personality. Character is a moral category, personality a category of freedom. In essence, personality is the public availability of multiple possibilities for my comportment and multiple reasons for my comportment, not to mention the possibility for acting without reasons—just because doing this seems to be part of my personality now.